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20 June 2023

Sunak misses the chance to distance himself from Boris Johnson

The PM was one of many Conservatives who failed to turn up for the Commons vote on the Privileges Committee’s report – where were all the Tories?

By Freddie Hayward

The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly last night (19 June) to endorse the Privileges Committee report that found Boris Johnson flagrantly misled the House. His former MP’s pass on to the Westminster estate will be withheld.

Few defended him. Some condemned him. Most absented themselves. The Conservative Party was split last night over its response to the Privileges Committee report.

One minister made eager noises at the prospect of voting against their former leader as they crossed College Green. But not many MPs were this enthusiastic. The Conservative benches were sparsely populated (I counted 28 MPs from the press gallery), despite the chamber being air-conditioned against the heat, a rare luxury in the Palace of Westminster.

So why did 225 Tory MPs not turn up to vote, including the Prime Minister? “It shouldn’t go to a vote. If it does, most of us will abstain because we think Labour is playing party politics with it,” one minister told me beforehand. As it happened, it was Labour’s chief whip, Alan Campbell, who forced a vote and prevented the motion being nodded through.

[See also: Pledge tracker: Is Rishi Sunak regretting his promises?]

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But that’s not the full picture. Ministers will have known that the leader-picking party membership still contains Johnson loyalists. They wouldn’t want to anger any potential supporters in a future leadership election. The public at large is less likely to remember who voted in this single vote than the party faithful. Rishi Sunak himself seems to have wanted to keep his party on side, pass the motion with as little pain as possible and move on. But he missed an opportunity to put distance between him and his ever-present predecessor.

That’s partly why Penny Mordaunt’s strong defence of the committee and its findings was so noticeable. The Leader of the House praised its report and went so far as to call Johnson’s resignation honours list a “debasement” of the system. She’s carved out a niche away from the rest of the cabinet. Excuse the cynicism, but I can already hear her leadership campaign using the speech to show she’s the “fresh face” the party needs.

Most of the speeches were high-minded homilies on how parliament should hold itself to account. The Conservative MP John Baron made the point that the alternative to parliament doing so would be the interference of some unelected body. To retain their independence on behalf of their constituents, MPs must ensure their colleagues behave appropriately. That’s hard to do when so few show up.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: Is Boris Johnson now so different from Donald Trump?]

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